Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians

The American Rhythm by Mary Austin

Mary Austin was one of the most active Primitivists of the 1920s. In 1923, she published a book called The American Rhythm, which compared modern poetry to Native American songs. In the title essay, Austin identifies Native American verses as the nation's true literary roots and advises her contemporaries to use them as models for their work.

In addition to Austin's commentary, The American Rhythm also contains loose translations of songs and ritual chants from Native American groups all over the continent and poems Austin wrote in the style of Native Americans. Beyond just following Indian writing styles, Austin fully believed that she could "become" Indian by engaging in Indian activities like collecting materials for and making baskets and singing ritual songs. She believed that copying behavior put her in the optimal state of mind for writing poetry, as it united her use of language with her body. Austin felt that by becoming Indian, she also became truly American and an authentic American poet.

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Cover from <em>The American Rhythm</em>
Cover from The American Rhythm
Mary Austin

On the cover of Mary Austin's The American Rhythm, the description of Native American verse as having "stark and simple beauty" reflects how Austin both appreciated and romanticized Indian culture.

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